Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Blog of a Bookslut

For later, check out Blog of a Bookslut for any interesting recs.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Fountainhead

The Fountainhead
by Ayn Rand

So a few acquaintances had been rather enthusiastic about Ayn Rand and there seems or at least seemed to be a reemergent interest in Ayn Rand (Ayn Rand Institute, suggestion of Ayn Rand'ien thought in The Incredibles), so I decided to reread an Ayn Rand book and see what the hubbub was about.

I'm in the middle of this right now and had some thoughts. I'll write more once I'm done.

The first part, Peter Keating, hooked me. My impression: intelligent author, intelligent characters... okay, this is pretty interesting.

The second part, Ellsworth M. Toohey, however, gets pretty tiring. It drips with condescension of socialists. Ellsworth Toohey becomes an extreme caricature, from his upbringing to anything he says. Reading the front flap, Ayn Rand experienced Communism in Russia first-hand and then moved to the US, vowing never to go back, so I can understand the reasoning for why she felt so strongly anti-socialist; however, it's too bad it's reflected so obviously in the novel, because I feel like I'm reading propaganda in intellectual novel form.

An aside, I don't quite buy how anyone could read this book and use it as basis for arguing anything politically here in the United States. It seems that the point of Fountainhead is to attack socialism and specifically Communist Russia around the 1930's, which is a key point, because almost nothing in the US is run remotely close to that system. Even the left big-goverment ideas are so drastically different than Russia, that I don't buy Rand'ism used as an argument for less government. What is particularly ironic is that one of the themes in Fountainhead is similar to ones in that of the Futurist art movement. That is, ideas from the past are not applicable to the present and should not be used. So to be using Rand as a "proof-point" for how things should be run today seems rather contradictory.

As much as I criticize, I do believe in some of the ideas she presents, just not to the extreme she does: 1) The importance of reason and rationality 2) Creativity and innovation is hindered by beauracracy 3) That people should pursue the things they love to the best of their abilities.

One more thing that I'll note about this book. Rand writes Roark's character as if he is a perfect man whose genius was suppressed by other people. I shudder at the thought of those who read the book and falsely delude themselves in thinking they are that genius.

--12/1/05

Finally finished this book... It's definitely a worthwhile read, mainly for stating the things I mentioned above. But Rand could have definitely done with a better editor. A lot of the time, it was just like, okay, I understand your point, you're frickn rambling now.

Besides that, I don't think I have much else to say.

-- 10/31/09
An NYTimes article on Heller's biography, Ayn Rand and The World She Made, which also discusses Ayn Rand herself.

The Ten Faces of Innovation

The Ten Faces of innovation
By Tom Kelley

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Yes, it gets a bit "Hallelujah innovation saves!" in parts (like praising Starbucks for their suggested cds? c'mon) But Kelley really gives a very nice framework for which to think about new ideas and for ways of making it into a reality.

Kelley co-founded a fairly well-known product design consulting company, Ideo, so he's got street-cred, which is quite evident on reading it. Of course, the book focuses on innovation in the work-place, but I have found it equally applicable when talking about new ideas to friends and family.

Anyways, I'm lending my copy to family and friends. I liked it that much.

[Spotted on Amazon. Bought it to help think about my career]

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Blast

Apparently, I missed Murakami read at MIT. MIT Writer Series Darn.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

End Zone

End Zone
by Don DeLillo

I can't say that much about this book. The writing and some of the observations were passable, but I didn't really come out of it with anything. The only thing slightly interesting was that the plot was so unabashedly not a traditional story-arc, but even that I can't really say all that much about. In the end, forgetable.

(Another author that Murakami is compared to.)

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

V

V
by Thomas Pynchon

Just started V and I got a kick out of this description:

There is no way to describe the way she walked except as a kind of brave sensual trudging: as if she were nose-deep in snowdrifts, and yet on route to meet a lover.


I'll return to this entry when I'm done.

>

(Oct 18, 2005)

I finally finished this mother of a novel and I rather liked it.

Having some sort of guide (like such) would have been immensely helpful... As the reviewer of the guide mentions, there are a lot of repeated themes, a lot of details from various worlds (Navy, various cities, different languages) and add on the fact that Pynchon does not give you any guidance in how to interpret the things in the novel.

But I really appreciated the latter attribute. It's very akin to moving to a new city and living there. You encounter day-to-day events, meet various people and see contradictory events & actions ... and slowly you develop a sense of the city, you begin to see the identity of the city as a whole. (Not surprisingly, this is one theme in the novel)

Pynchon gives *a lot* of details and has a slew of characters, but leaves enough on the ground that you could probably start to piece together the different themes and points with enough time and effort, which I generally appreciate. I'm quite sure I did not pick up everything in the novel, so if I were to pick up this book again, I would see and understand new things, not because of any new perspective I would bring into reading, but because there are that many things going on in the novel.

I noticed that Pynchon had a habit of describing an action and then only sometime later, would he reveal an explanation. Say something like the following (and this is my poor writing at work here):

Joe and Jim were talking about the redness of certain church steeples. Joe's dog, Pluto wanders in to the room and Joe hits Pluto upside the head with a newspaper, exclaiming, "Bad Dog!" Pluto leaves the room with tail between legs.

Joe and Jim continue to talk about church steeples, getting into whether burgundy or maroon is a more appropriate color for churches. Or maybe because red could be interpreted as a representative color of Satan that it should be discarded as an option altogether. They continued this discussion late into the night.

Earlier, Joe and Sara were eating dinner at the apartment. Barry Manilow had just finished playing on the radio and the DJ came on to talk about the weather about the same time Pluto jumped into the room to viciously set upon humping Sara's leg. Joe and Sara were less than pleased at this.



In the least, it's an interesting way of writing, but moreover, I think it contributes to the sense that you are organically learning about everything, as if you see something and later on, someone tells you the explanation.

Anyways, all in all, V was a solid novel and one that I wouldn't mind picking up again ... or at least reading that guide.

(A quote on a Murakami booked compared Murakami to Pynchon)

Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
By Carson McCullers

This novel is not meant to be read as a realistic description of people in a real town. The characters in this novel are abstract..."proof-points" that it is difficult if not impossible for humans to truly communicate with each other. And that the noble goals of racial and economic equality are difficult to achieve as a result of this failure to communicate among those with the vision and ignorance on the part of all others.

I generally do not like novels written for the sake of proving something about human society or human qualities (See my entry on Einstein's Dreams.) In the context of current day in the United States, I do not agree with the thesis of this novel. But given that this was published pre civil-rights movement and pre Cold War Commmunism paranoia scare, I respect this novel a great deal. And despite the fact that I do not agree with the thesis, it is quite deftly written and challenging in the topics it covers, making it more than a worthwhile read.

(Rec by Judy)

Friday, September 23, 2005

Book lists

If I ever run out of book recommendations from friends:

Wow, what a claim... the Top 40 most important works in the world

BBC Top 100 books

(Swiped from metafilter)

Monday, September 19, 2005

Empire Falls

Empire Falls
By Richard Russo

A page turner, but I'm not sure I liked it or not. The characters and their relationships are well written. But nothing really stuck out at me and in the end I'll probably forget about this book - kind of like watching a fairly decent, but somewhat forgettable film like Cider House Rules. Entertaining read, but nothing special.

Oh, one small complaint, it's set in Maine, but I just didn't feel any New England'ness to it. Mentioning the Red Sox not winning games just doesn't cut it for me.

(Rec by Judy)

Dandelion Wine

Dandelion Wine
By Ray Bradbury

A truly delightful book about a boy's summer and all the things he experiences. I hate when reviewers do this, but really, the book is like drinking wine. I really liked this book, but unlike other I enjoy and read page after page after page, this one, I had to put it down after a few chapters and reflect on what I had just read.

A particular favorite chapter of mine. A man in his forties visits an ice cream shop with a local neighborhood boy. They both order lime ice cream and upon ordering, an older woman invites them over to eat their ice cream with her, saying "ordering such an unusual ice cream flavour with such conviction must mean interesting company." And the man says to the older woman, "I used to be in love with you."

The older woman and the younger gentleman, begin to talk every day, the older woman sharing stories of her travel around the world alone. And by sharing the stories with him, it is as if they had traveled together - the woman no longer had traveled longing for a companion, and the man no longer had stayed in the same town, dreaming of traveling. It is the best days of their lives.

The woman is old, however, and can feel herself going. Before she passes away, she says to the younger man. "If there is the opportunity, try to die before your time. Catch pneumonia and pass away. That way in the next life, we will meet and we will be the same age."

I do the book disservice by so ineloquently summarizing a chapter, but I can't get over certain parts. A definite gem of a book.

(Kathleen's)

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Old man and the Sea


Old man and the sea

By Ernest Hemingway

This book is a classic. I'd describe it akin to the best engineering designs - everything in the story is there because it has to be and nothing more.


(Leif's)

Friday, August 19, 2005

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Michael Chabon

I rather liked this. It covers a fairly large span of time - from when the two main characters, Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, are just boys to when they're successful comic book creators.

The one thing that did bother me about the story was minor inconsistencies (I think). Like at the end of a chapter, it would say something like Joe would never drive a car again and then at the start of a new chapter, Joe would be driving a car. Maybe it was just me parsing these details to quickly, but I could have sworn it happening multiple times.

I think the thing that really works about the book is that it is this wonderful amalgam of comic-book and fiction based on real-life. The characters combine real-life comic book creators from the Golden Age of comics and the comic-book superheroes they create. As in comic books, the characters have their flaws and make mistakes that make you cringe. And of course, there are the love stories, which I do have to say somewhat conveniently work out in the end, but were interesting nonetheless. But overall, it's a solid mixture of its elements. In particular, it really seems like Chabon did a fairly extensive job of investigating what it was like to live in those times and see what real comic-book creators were influenced by and what problems they faced.

So to quickly conclude, definitely worth a read.

(Recommended by Judy)

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
by Mark Haddon

I felt kind of blase about this one. The main character is autistic. He tells a story of how in the process of investigating the "murder" of a neighbor dog, he inevitably is lead into a further adventure.

The story is quite realistic - I mean it could happen to someone real. And it was interesting getting into the mind of a real autistic. It's just that at times, it doesn't feel authentic - it feels like someone who isn't autistic creating a character who is and trying his best to inhabit that mind. (It turns out that the author isn't autistic - he was a volunteer at one point helping autistic children.) It's an somewhat ambitious goal, and it works at times (an autistic perspective renders certain realities somewhat humorous), but it doesn't work all the time, which makes it feel forgettable.

(Lying around. Shan's)

The Alienist

The Alienist
by Caleb Carr

I don't know how else to describe it, but the writing in this book just has a very classic feel. Kind of like reading a Sherlock Holmes. In certain ways, it seems like this book is influenced by the Sherlock Holmes series.

The story is set in New York in the late 1800's and a serial killer is on the loose. A reporter, John Moore, provides the common man perspective (similar to Watson's character). He is invited by his old Harvard friend, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a renowned psychologist, and the Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt to help bring in the killer. Together they assemble a small team of personalities to assist.

I can't say that anything about The Alienist is that novel, but things are put together quite nicely. The classic style of writing I mentioned before and the characters in the story help to evoke the late 1800's setting, although I wasn't so sure that it wasn't just taking advantage of the readers impression of that era through stereotypes. The action proceeds along organically as one would expect such an investigation to go, which I appreciated and there were nice action moments that were page turners. All in all, this was quite an entertaining read.

(recommended by judy)

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Pleasure of Finding things out


The Pleasure of Finding Things out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman

By Richard Feynman

After starting to reading the bits in this book, it becomes quickly evident why so many people have such a profound respect for Richard Feynman. The way he so easily elucidates a complex theory with simple analogies is really quite astounding. I think people also respond to the fact that he genuinely wants to share what he finds interesting and to inspire a similar interest in his audience.

But I think what really makes him and his stories so worthwhile are that like a good comedian or a good story teller, they reveal small truths about life, about interacting with others, etc. It's just rather refreshing, like seeing a good true friend after a long time and sharing some deep conversation.

(Post on Metafilter)

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Chindi

Chindi
by Jack McDevitt

I liked this book. The good points: I was satisfied with the science - inventions/discoveries was either well-explained and/or plausible in 100 or so years. The disasters were good in setting up how dangerous it really is to be in space and to be an explorer. And I think some valid social questions were hinted at, one of which was: is it best to leave an archaelogical find in its original context or should it be brought to a location in which more people can view it.

As for critiques, I'll list off a few of the complaints on Amazon and my reactions to those complaints:

1) The Point-of-view narration shifts are a bit tiring - Yeah I'll agree with this. They're a bit jarring, especially after Hutch had been set up as the main character in the beginning
2) The selection of characters is like Gilligan's Island - Haha, I didn't think about this, but yeah I'll give it that too. (The millionaire, the hot actress, the artist, etc)
3) The aliens they encountered had male and female sexes. This is highly unlikely and shows a lack of imagination. - It's true that the alien lifeforms they found were remarkedly human-like, but I think it was implied they only encountered two types of aliens out of a number of alien forms that did exist.
4) The characters were dumb. (i.e. they impatiently try to meet aliens without much forethought) - I guess there are different schools of thought on this issue. My personal view is that there are a variety of people in the world, so why would you only want to read about super-awesome, super-intelli, James Bond characters all the time? I think the characters were like people you'd meet in the real-world. I suppose that a point could be made possibly for lack of development of all characters, but there were quite a few.
5) The last-minute cliffhanging rescues were a bit much - I think I was okay with that. I think traveling in space is one of the most dangerous things to do, so there should be close-calls, especially with the amateur explorers on-board.

Anyways, all in all, this book was worth a read.

(Recommended by Mark)

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Einstein's Dreams

Einstein's Dreams
by Alan Lightman

Not a fan. The writing is stylish, but since there's no real plot to the book, the book kind of gets repetitive.

And I think I had the same problem with this book that I did with books such as The Giver by Lois Lowry or Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. The problem is more evident in those previous books, but at times in Einstein's Dreams, it seems like Lightman is trying to push an opinion, such as it's not worth it to want to live forever or to want to slow down time. But since each chapter is so short and he doesn't expand on one particular idea for too long, the reasoning for those opinions comes across as both half-baked and clumsy.

(Saw a recommendation on Amazon)

Sunday, May 29, 2005

A Wild Sheep Chase

A Wild Sheep Chase
by Haruki Murakami

Murakami's writing is excellent. His topics may be slightly odd and surrealist for some people's taste, but whenever I pick up any of his books, his writing hooks me and I polish them off in a couple of days.

Of the books of his that I've read, I've found that a striking similarity between them. The main character is usually an average guy who really likes reading, drinking in a regular bar, jazz, and keys in on rather mundane body parts of a woman like ears. The character usually has to go investigate something or find someone and relationships play a large role in the plot (and are well described). And the endings can be sometimes be frustratingly supernatural/surrealist (which could very well be some cultural difference that I'm missing out on).

A Wild Sheep Chase follows this pattern. The main character finds himself attracted to a woman with spectacularly sexy ears and ends up going out with her. Meanwhile while working as a graphic designer for a small company, he is tracked down by a powerful and mysterious boss because of a picture that he put in a client's advertisement. This picture contains a sheep with a star on its fur and this sheep is a special one, having something to do with the boss's rise to power and ability to control a great deal of companies and politics. As a result, the main character is coerced into a quest to find this sheep.

Bizarre plot, eh?

Well it's good reading as usual and had me hooked to the last page. If you've never read any Murakami, I'd suggest you pick up any of his books and give him a shot.

(Recommended by Shan)

Thursday, May 26, 2005

All Souls: A Family Story From Southie

All Souls: A Family Story From Southie
Michael Patrick MacDonald

Having lived in Massachusetts my whole life and now having lived in the Boston area for the past 6 years, it was interesting reading about a region of Boston that I had heard about, but knew little of: Southie.

Southie is located south of downtown Boston, and in the past, was home to a very poor and mostly Irish community. It's most well known for a great deal of violence (unreported murders, suicides, and drug and gangster activity) in the 60's and 70's.

The book is a memoir of Michael growing up in those violent and chaotic times. To be honest, I had trouble getting into the book for quite some time, but I am not sure if this was purposeful or not. The memoir follows Michael from when he is quite young and in the beginning, things are told as an observant child would, sticking to straight descriptions of actions and events. But as Michael grows up, the narration of the events becomes more reflective and relationships and reasons for events begin to clear up for him as well as for the reader. It's as if you found someone's diary, who had written in it for 30 some odd years and you read it through chronologically.

This method of narrating provides the reader the sense that he is growing along side of Michael and as a result, when he starts to describe the tragedies that befall his family, it's downright devastating. And this is the key to the book. Families all over Southie were dealing with their own suicides and murders and drug overdoses, yet kept the pain to themselves and would not acknowledge the violence as a wide spread problem.

I'm oversimplifying as always, but I found myself quite touched with the book. And in the end I really understood why Michael loved being in Southie so much and felt the need to return there to help out when he was older.

All in all, it was quite a worthwhile read.

(Laying around. Shan's)

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Eragon

Eragon
by Christopher Paolini

Another book borrowed from a coworker, this one I had more trouble getting into initially and certain writing passages seemed a little too wordy and explicit. And as my coworker pointed out when he first handed it over, it heavily borrows from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. But I think that once you realize that Christopher was 15 years old when he finished it, you give him some leeway.

This book involves dragons and dragon-riders, which puts it squarely in the fantasy genre. And it is another coming-of-age story. But what I found unique about this book were the things that the main character learnt as he grew up. Of course, he had to learn the cool magic spells and the sword-fighting and how to ride his dragon. But things like learning to purposely act independently of a respected leader's suggestion, or telling white lies to family members, or other relationship/communication details really gave this firmly fantasy book a realistic sheen to it.

Worth a read, but not a classic or a favorite.

(Recommended to me by Mark)

Abhorsen Trilogy


Sabriel

Lirael

Abhorsen

by Garth Nix

Borrowed from a coworker, I got caught up in these books big-time. It is very much fantasy reading, involving magic, spells, swords, talking animals, kings and queens. But it is set in modern time (or at least 1900's) where there are guns, soldiers, churches, etc, the link being that the fantasy magic is mainly restricted to one part of the land and the rest of the world is mainly non-magical.

I think the thing that draws you in about the books is the coming-of-age narrative. In both Sabriel and the Lirael/Abhorsen storylines, the female protagonists start off as clueless characters and you follow as they learn their trade, travel and fight progressively stronger bad guys. Yeah, I'm making it sound like a cheap fantasy video-game, but I can definitely see these books appealing to both boys and girls.

Maybe the best thing I can say about these books is that they got me wanting to read more after I was finished.

(Recommended to me by Mark)